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Sonny Rollins: On Impulse

Partly because I have such enormous regard for Sonny Rollins’ best work, his inconsistency, which most critics seem unaware of, drives me nuts. Rollins has been praised for his “thematic” improvisation, during which he devotes a lot of attention to repeating and varying phrases rather than tearing through the changes like Sonny Stitt. His method of unpredictably fragmenting his lines and varying the speed of his playing, now double-timing, now half-timing, now rushing ahead, now laying back, also is fascinating, and in these areas Rollins has had a significant influence.

However, often when Sonny engages in motivic and speed variation and playing asymmetrically he gets too playful, causing his improvisation to be coy. When he recorded with John Coltrane in the 1950’s, Rollins recalled, in fact, that Trane, who looked up to him, expressed disappointment with his lack of seriousness. Sonny’s at his best when he’s employing thematic development and changing speeds while performing with discipline. At worst, when he does these things without discipline, the momentum of his solos keeps getting broken off.

Rollins can employ a Stitt-like manner of running the changes too, e.g. on Dizzy Gillespie’s “The Eternal Triangle” with Stitt. When he throws restraint to the winds Rollins can be wonderful, exhibiting great facility, power and a rich flow of ideas.

In fact, during On Impulse, a (1965) quartet album, Rollins best moments occur when he opens up and tears into “Three Little Words.” Here his work has tremendous buoyancy and great continuity. Elsewhere he plays engagingly but not up to this level.

Sonny performs with pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Walter Booker and drummer Walter Booker, who provide him with vigorous, intelligent accompaniment. Bryant’s graceful, complex solos deserve considerable praise and attention.

Alfie contains Rollins’ compositions for the movie’s soundtrack, performed by a band consisting of three tenor saxophones, an alto, a baritone, two trombones and a rhythm section. Only guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Roger Kellaway, who perform impeccably, and Rollins solo. Oliver Nelson provided the solid arrangements, which were based on Rollins’ original charts.

Despite, or perhaps because, Rollins’ work here has been associated with a popular film, it’s gone largely unappreciated. The fact that Coltrane had become more popular by 1966, when Alfie was cut, also caused jazz fans to take it for granted. But Rollins’ solos on it rank among the best he’s recorded. He very effectively balances restraint and explosiveness, displaying a great deal of subtlety, employing a broad, hard but skillfully shaded tone, draws on an enriched musical vocabulary, displaying the mark of Coltrane and the free jazzmen on him, and shows that he’s capable of playing with considerable tenderness on a couple of tracks.

If you didn’t pay a lot of attention to Alfie the first time it was released, check it out closely now.

Originally Published